Author Archives: Rachel Farbiarz

Rachel Farbiarz

About Rachel Farbiarz

Rachel Farbiarz is a graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law. Rachel worked as a clerk for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, after which she practiced law focusing on the civil rights and humane treatment of prisoners.

Yitro’s Advice

This week’s portion opens with a friendly, wizened face. Yitro–priest of Midian, father-in-law of Moses–emerges from the wilderness, daughter and grandsons in tow. After hearing of Israel’s liberation, the priest has come to reunite Moses with the family he had previously sent away. Moses’s delight in seeing Yitro is palpable. The text is suffused with a rare tone of uncomplicated warmth–relief, even, at the esteemed elder’s validation of his son-in-law’s exploits and powerful God.
american jewish world service
There is, however, not much room in Moses’s life for such comforts. No sooner than the morrow does he return to a grueling regimen–attending to those who, seeking justice for their conflicts and claims, “stood upon [him] from morning until evening.” In this tableau’s corner, one can just make out Yitro emerging into the morning dew, taking in the endless gaggle of contestants bearing down upon Moses. Surveying the snaking line, the bewildered priest poses to his son-in-law: “Why do you sit alone with all the people standing upon you from morning to evening?”

Dismissing Moses

In short order, Yitro dismisses Moses’s defense of his solitary endeavor. “The thing you do is not good. You will surely wear yourself out–both you and this people that is with you–for the thing is too heavy for you, you will not be able to do it alone.” Moses, Yitro admonishes, must delegate authority to trusted judges who will seek the leader’s counsel only in the most difficult cases. 

It is not surprising that Yitro quickly grows concerned with the specter of a depleted Moses. Indeed, immediately preceding Yitro’s arrival, Moses appears as a wretchedly fatigued man: his raised arms–talismanic keys to victory in the battle with Amalek–remaining outstretched only through the support of Aaron and Hur. 

But, pointedly, Yitro’s concern is not limited to Moses alone. The Midianite fears too for the nation’s well being. In a query at once tender and accusing, Yitro plies: “What is this thing that you do to the people?” Unless justice is made more accessible, he warns, the people themselves will be worn down through waiting. But, if Moses appoints judges, Yitro assures, “you will be able to stand, and also all this people will come to its place in peace.” Sensing, perhaps, the ominous implications of this assurance’s inverse, Moses heeds his father-in-law’s words. 

They Remained Silent

Provided by

American Jewish World Service

, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

Parashat Vayeshev recounts the cover-up of Joseph’s sale into slavery. The brothers present their father with Joseph’s coat and Jacob dutifully reads their script: “It is the coat of my son. An evil beast has devoured him; Joseph is without a doubt torn in pieces.”
american jewish world service
There is, however, another more discerning witness to the brothers deception: “But Isaac,” the midrash tells us, “knew that [Joseph] was alive.” The blind old man had long ago played the mark in a similar melodrama between Jacob and Esau: He could surely sniff out the acrid return of filial betrayal crossed with brotherly hate.

Isaac Never Told

Yet Isaac remained silent as his son tumbled into a grief as dark as the grave. Jacob “refused to be comforted, saying, ‘No, I will go down mourning to my son in Sheol. And his father wept for him.” This last “father” and this latter “him,” Rashi informs, refer not to Jacob weeping for Joseph, but to Isaac weeping for Jacob. “Isaac cried because of the grief of Jacob, but he did not mourn, for he knew that [Joseph] was alive.”

God and Joseph also guarded the brothers’ secret from the bereaved Jacob. The midrash relates that God did not reveal the deception “because the brothers had placed a ban or a curse on anyone who would reveal the truth and they had included God in their pact of silence.” And since the ban extended to him as well, neither did Joseph send word to his abject father.

But Isaac’s tongue was not bound by the ban. The old man fashioned his own muzzle, guided, as Rashi explains, by a peculiar logic: “How shall I reveal [the deception] when the Holy One Blessed Be He does not desire to reveal [it] to him?”

Bewildering and Pathetic

Isaac’s justification is as bewildering as it is pathetic. Was this not the same man who had bent God’s will to his own as he pleaded for a child? Was this not Isaac to whom God did not simply respond, but “let Himself be urged, persuaded and won over”? How could this man, Divinely validated for his efforts to intervene in God’s plans, remain mute?

Alone In The Wilderness

Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

The landscape of global hunger can be efficiently surveyed through its statistical contours. Every day, hunger-related causes kill 25,000 people around the world. In 2007, the number of undernourished people increased by 75 million and in 2008 by 40 million–pushing today’s global tally past the one billion mark.

Obscured in this numerical vista, however, is hunger’s human impact–how deprivation can insinuate itself into relationships, dull the senses and fray a society’s fabric. Parashat Vayera, with its story of Hagar and Ishmael, lays bare this crushing impact.

Without Food Or Water

At Sarah’s behest, Hagar and her son Ishmael were cast off, alone, into the wilderness. After their provisions ran out and mother and son were left without water or food in the hot expanse, the boy Ishmael rapidly wasted away. Hagar, recognizing that her son’s death was at hand, “flung the child under one of the bushes and went off and sat down at a distance…for she thought, ‘Let me not see when the child dies.’”
american jewish world service
The tale ends happily enough after an angel of God revealed to Hagar a spring at which to revive the boy. But the story lingers uncomfortably. It is that painful word “flung”–an inescapable mark of something very wrong. Here is Hagar, a mother with a dying son she does not comfort. Hagar does not seek to prolong the moments she has with her only child, to quiet his wailing, to ease his suffering. Instead, she flings the boy and scurries a good distance away.

Hagar’s behavior is not recognizable as cruelty. Indeed, even as she casts Ishmael aside, we feel not scorn, but great pathos for her. Undoubtedly depleted herself, Hagar seems discombobulated by her desperation, and her actions, a manic surrender to it. Hunger and thirst seem to have undone the woman; and her life’s fabric, woven together by the most precious of relationships, has been rent.

While Hagar’s tale grows out of days–at most weeks–of want, such privation and the surrender that follows is a near-permanent global reality today, looming over the millions of mothers and fathers who watch their own children weakened by chronic hunger and undernutrition. In addition to stunting growth and hindering fetal development, chronic hunger attacks the spirit. It saps energy, slows thinking, steals motivation and depresses productivity. It impedes one’s ability to learn and corrodes one’s sense of well-being. In its presence, hopelessness proliferates, prompting world leaders from former Secretary of State Kissinger to Brazil’s President Lula da Silva to cast hunger and hope as antipodes.

Words as Witness

Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

“It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.”

~William Carlos Williams (from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”)

The Pentateuch (Torah, or Five Books of Moses)’s penultimate portion, Parashat Ha’azinu, memorializes the “Song of Moses,” canted by the great leader on the day of his death. An epic poem in six parts, Ha’azinu tells of God’s enduring relationship with Israel, unfurling their stormy entanglements into both desert past and prophetic future.
american jewish world service
Its recitation is Moses’ last pedagogic act, and the song-poem figures largely in the great leader’s final preparations for death. Moses schools the entire assembly in its verses, satisfying God’s command that Ha’azinu’s words “not be forgotten from the mouths of your offspring.” And on the day of his death, the relentless scribe writes out the poem in its entirety, instructing the Levites that it be placed in the Sanctuary, next to the Ark of the Covenant (Deut. 31:21-30).

There is powerful emotional force to this song-poem. Arranged not in the Torah’s typical textual format, Ha’azinu’s verses instead are presented in columns — the better, one can imagine, to see their words quiver. Even our scrolls seem thus to acknowledge that Ha’azinu’s power is drawn not from the narrative substance of its verses, but from their form; that the poem holds its audience in thrall through its couplets and cadences; its lurid imagery and outlandish metaphor; its esoteric language of “no-gods” and “no-folk.”

Ha’azinu’s verses are less sentences than incantations — a kind of magic that does the heavy lifting of the soul from a posture of attention to one of rapture, from interest to commitment. This is the mysterious work of poetry, rendering Moses’ final recitation not a mere collection of words, but “a witness for the children of Israel” (Deut. 31:19).

And here is Ha’azinu’s searing imprint: That words can be witness — to covenant and commitment, trauma and injustice; to the failures of history and to the future’s promise. Words do not only narrate and recount: They also do. They rebuke indifference and instill commitment. They suspend bridges between worlds and gather people into communities. They compel action.

Women & War

Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

Parashat Ki Tetze opens with a chilling portrait of the inevitability of man’s brutality. When–not if–you go to war against your enemies and take as captives those whom you do not slay: Then, you will see among the conquered “a woman of beautiful form” whom you will desire and take for your “wife” (Deut. 21:10-12). That is the premise: War, conquest, captivity, rape.

AJWS LogoNow the intervention: After the victorious soldier has taken home his comely captive, the Torah instructs that her head is to be shaved and her nails made to grow long. She is to remove the fetching “garment of her captivity”–a particularly alluring dress donned in a calculus of sex and survival. And for one full month, she is to remain in this state; unmolested in her captor’s home and “weep[ing] for her father and her mother” (Deut. 21:12-14).

At the close of this period, the captor is permitted to “come to her and live with her” and make her his wife. If, however, the soldier’s desire has withered during this period of cultivated dishevelment and grief, he is to set her free “for her soul.” He may not sell or otherwise enslave the woman because he has already “afflicted her,” both by taking her captive and putting her through a singularly alienating process (Deut. 21:14-15).

The commentators interpret these paces as both an accommodation and containment of the sexual violence that is often war’s companion. The soldier may violate the captive woman–and continue to do so as her husband–but first he must forebear, disciplining his desire through a process meant to extinguish it. And the craft of this process–calibrated so well to the contours of his desire–conspicuously asks nothing after her own.

The unspoken concession here is that even God’s word cannot compel the taming of man’s lust in wartime. At best, with time and subterfuge, it can be cajoled or tricked out of existence. But even these outcomes–in contrast to the Torah’s myriad, non-negotiable commands–are not obligatory. The Torah, that is, never explicitly prohibits man’s rapacious wartime actions as it does so many other human behaviors. Its preferred course is instead implied through the text’s barely-concealed condemnation of the soldier.

Seeds of Peace

Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

In Parashat Re’eh, the Israelites are given intimation of the shape of their future society across the Jordan River. The portrait of the Israelites’ world-to-come generally radiates an exuberant sense of well-being–reflecting a society contentedly organized and functioning smoothly.

AJWS LogoThe desert nomads are regaled with how they will yearly process to a central site for the dedication of their agricultural bounty. Here, they will “rejoice before the Lord your God with your sons and daughters and with your male and female slaves…” And if the way is too long to travel with such plenty, the pilgrim will exchange his bounty for money to spend at God’s designated site on “anything you may desire” (Deuteronomy 12:12, 14:23, and 14:25-26).

In this halcyon world, the bounty of the land will be mirrored in a generous social order: Debts will be remitted and slaves freed each seventh year–sent off with gifts from their masters “out of the flock, threshing floor, and vat.” The “stranger, the fatherless, and the widow” will celebrate the festivals with each household. And, if God’s commands are hearkened: “There shall be no needy among you…” (Deuteronomy 15:1, 15:12-13, 16:14, and 15:4). With these tantalizing promises of communal celebration and a caring civil society, Parashat Re’eh holds out the promise of idyll, plenty, and joy.

There are, however, fissures veining the serene portrait. Until the people have “come to the resting place, to the allotted haven,” this bountiful existence will not be fully realized. The world of festive in-gatherings and pilgrimages will not be established until God “grants you safety from all your enemies around you and you live in security” (Deuteronomy 12: 9-10). Realizing the promise of the well-ordered, abundant society that our parashah describes depends thus not only on arrival in the land, but also on reaching a state of peace therein.

Ushering in Peace

Treatment of the Stranger

This commentary is provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service. To learn more, visit

As the Israelites are poised to enter Canaan in Parashat Va’et’hanan, Moses finally finds his tongue and speaks at length with his people, instructing them on his legacy. Central to Moses’ oration is the insistence that the events of his life have unfurled before the people’s “own eyes.”AJWS Logo

As Moses retells it, his audience’s presence was essential to the covenant at Sinai: “The Lord your God sealed a covenant with us at Horeb. Not with our ancestors did the Lord seal this covenant but with us–we who are here today, all of us alive.” And with reference to the miracles of the Exodus, Moses declaims: “You yourself were shown to know that the Lord is God[.]” (Deuteronomy 4:3; 5:3; 4:35).

Moses’ insistence, however, is more fiction than fact. For the most part, his audience was not present at Sinai or the Exodus. The generation to which he speaks was born in the desert, to parents now buried beneath its sands. And it was those parents who saw the revelation at Sinai, who trod the dry depths of the split sea.

This peculiar misidentification–what commentator Robert Alter calls a “slide of identification between one generation and another” –cannot be understood as the slip of an old, addled mind.  Instead, I would proffer that this “slide” is an exceptionally powerful means of laying the experiential foundation for the Torah’s core injunction against oppression of the stranger.

But We Weren’t There!

Mentioned no fewer than 36 times throughout Scripture, the Torah’s exhortations on the treatment of the stranger often appear with a companion explanation: Heed the stranger’s treatment because “you know the feelings of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). But this explanation, like Moses’ feint, is premised on a sleight-of-hand. Our forebears were enslaved in Egypt, but we–their far-distant progeny–were not.

Moses’ generational slide begs to be interpreted less as a faithful description of historical fact and more as a normative charge to the nation. Through the frisson of misidentification, the desert generation–and we, Moses’ further-future audience–are implored to reach past the boundaries of self and become the witnesses whom the great leader invokes. We are goaded into taking on the existential reality of our enslaved ancestors.

Dispossession of Women’s Land

After decades of the Israelites’ wanderings, God’s decree upon the willful generation of the Exodus–“In this very wilderness shall your carcasses drop”–is nearly fulfilled (Numbers 14:29). To take stock of the new generation born in the desert, a census is ordered. Lineages are recorded; tribes’ sums inscribed; fresh tallies of the war-ready men collected. And from among these men, God charges, “shall the land be apportioned as shares, according to the listed names” (Numbers 26:53, 26:1-56).

AJWS LogoAgainst this backdrop–the work of the census complete, the law of the land’s division laid down–come five women: the daughters of Zelophehad, a sonless Manassite who died for his sins in the desert. The sisters demand a landed inheritance alongside the newly-numbered men. “Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son!” they lament. “Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” (Numbers 27:1-4).

The women present themselves for judgment before the “whole assembly” at the Tabernacle’s entrance. They bring their case to the tribes’ chieftains, to the high priest Eleazar, and to Moses. They are stubborn, these sisters–a “stiff-necked” cabal of five, undaunted by the only inheritance they have received until now: the cautionary knowledge that they are the progeny of a people annihilated for their murmuring complaints, the daughters of a sinner buried in the desert (Numbers 27:2-3).

While the daughters of Zelophehad seem emboldened by their grievance, it only silences their leaders. The sisters’ cause appears righteous, but its remedy is simply unthinkable in a society that numbers only its men. Into this mute vacuum comes the Divine ruling: “Rightly do the daughters of Zelophehad speak. You shall surely give them a secure holding in the midst of their father’s brothers and you shall pass on their father’s estate to them.” And then God reshapes the law in its entirety, commanding Moses: “And to the Israelites you shall speak, saying: ‘Should a man die without having a son, you shall pass on his estate to his daughter'” (Numbers 27:6-8).

Between the Living and the Dead

Parashat Korah tells of the mayhem and violence that often accompany political strife. After Korah the Levite challenged Moses‘ leadership and Aaron‘s priestly authority, a test was devised: God’s choice for priestly service would become known after Korah and Aaron each offered sacrificial incense. The divine response was unmistakable. The earth “opened her mouth and swallowed” alive Korah and his household. The rebel’s followers, in turn, were immolated in a fire “sent forth from God.” (Numbers 16:32,35)

AJWS logoAfter witnessing these florid retributions, the Israelites gathered against Moses and Aaron, menacing them with the eerily prescient accusation that they had “brought death upon God’s people.” Outraged at the nation’s defiance, God charged Moses and Aaron: “Remove yourselves from this community, that I may annihilate them in an instant!” (Numbers 17:6,10)

A plague soon stalked the camp, quickly consuming tens, then hundreds, then thousands. But neither Moses nor Aaron heeded God’s command to separate from the people. Instead, in an audacious mirroring of the Israelites’ defiance, Moses commanded Aaron to disobey God, prepare the sacrificial incense “and take it quickly to the community and make expiation for them.” These were tense, frightening moments for the brothers, and terror strains through Moses’ frantic aside to Aaron: “For wrath has gone forth from the Lord: the plague has begun!” (Numbers 17:11)

The constancy of Moses’ and Aaron’s devotion to this nation, which God has repeatedly threatened to destroy, makes it somewhat difficult to recognize the remarkable nature of their actions. Moses and Aaron did not try to save themselves–as God had commanded–but rather assumed the defense of a nation that had just rejected them. What is more, the curative is fraught with danger: Aaron must prepare the mercurial incense, whose offering had only just brought about Korah’s demise and, more poignantly, the earlier deaths of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu.

But Aaron did not flinch. Instead, he “ran to the midst of the congregation, where the plague had begun…” Offering incense for the people’s expiation, Aaron “stood between the dead and the living until the plague was checked.” The outsized muscularity of body and spirit that this effort demanded is reflected in a midrash that tells of Aaron restraining the Angel of Death against its will (Rashi, Numbers 17:13).

Birkat Kohanim–Blessing of the Priests or of the Community?

Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

Parashat Naso provides the script for one of the more penetrating segments of the Hebrew liturgy–the birkat kohanim, or priestly blessing. Over the millennia, this benediction has remained a seminal means of invoking the Divine in both the Jewish and Christian traditions. In this parashah, God dictates the blessing to Moses, who is to teach it to Aaron and his sons, the kohaniAJWS Logom, or priests:

May God bless you and guard you.
May God make God’s face shine upon you and grant grace to you.
May God lift up God’s face to you and give you peace (Numbers 6:22-26).

At the Sephardic synagogue in which I was raised, Shabbat mornings were punctuated by the eerie call-and-response of the benediction and the congregation’s hopeful rejoinder: “May it be God’s will.” Integral to the priests’ recitation were the rituals accompanying the blessing that seemed to suspend kohanim and congregation together in a humbled thrall.

Recitation of the Priestly Blessing

At a specified time in the service, the community’s kohanim discreetly excused themselves to perform their preparatory ablutions. The faint sound of the priests’ shuffling was followed by a call-to-attention–Koh-Haahh-Neeeeeem!–summoning them to their posts before the ark. The men of the congregation gathered their children and their children’s children under the prayer shawls they had drawn over their heads.

The kohanim faced them, cloaked too in their billowing shawls. Their arms outstretched, their fingers extended and conjoined in the cultic v-shape, the priests swayed and chanted the blessing–distending its syllables, trilling its notes. Only after the kohanim had finished the blessing did the face-off of masquerading ghosts end: Modestly, the priests turned their backs to the congregation and took down their shawls, unveiling themselves before the ark.

I actually was not supposed to have witnessed any of this. All of us, kohanim and congregation alike, were to have had our eyes closed or averted downward, to shield ourselves–it is traditionally said–from the awesome power that emanated from between the kohanim’s fingers. I have always suspected though that we protected ourselves not only from the Divine, but also from something very human: the tendency to turn an act of blessing into an act that invests one group with power at the expense of the other.

1 2